AFC East: Benjamin Watson

Keller doesn't make TE Power Rankings cut

March, 29, 2011
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I understand why New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller didn't generate more attention in ESPN.com's positional Power Rankings this week.

He's one of those players you need to watch on a regular basis to fully appreciate him. Keller's numbers don't stack up with the most prolific tight ends because he doesn't get the opportunities they do.

That's the only reason he didn't make the Power Rankings cut, finishing 12th. Only three voters on our panel listed him on their ballots. Here's mine:
  1. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers
  2. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
  3. Dallas Clark, Indianapolis Colts
  4. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers
  5. Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars
  6. Dustin Keller, New York Jets
  7. Benjamin Watson, Cleveland Browns
  8. Zach Miller, Oakland Raiders
  9. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons
  10. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions

Keller is a weapon all over the field. He's not just a threat in the red zone. He can stretch a defense, too. Only six tight ends had multiple plays of 40-plus yards last year. Keller was one of them.

Through the first four weeks of the season, Keller had 19 receptions for 254 yards and five touchdowns. But he didn't get as much consideration when Santonio Holmes returned from a four-game suspension and joined a receiving corps that included Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery.

So when you check the final numbers for tight ends last season, you see Keller ranked 11th in receptions, ninth in yards, sixth in average yards (minimum 40 catches) and tied for eighth in touchdowns.

It's easy to see how he can get bumped from the Power Rankings top 10 when opinions are in play and an injured star such as Clark must be accounted for.

As for the rest of my ballot, the players I must justify are Watson's inclusion and Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley's exclusion.

As with a few of my previous Power Rankings ballots, this comes down to personal taste. Cooley has great numbers, but so would a lot of other tight ends if they were targeted 123 times in a season. Furthermore, those targets are quick, high-percentage throws. Cooley had only nine plays of 20 yards or more and none that went at least 40 yards. He also fumbled three times.

A lack of big plays also is why I had Gonzalez rated so low. He had only five plays of 20-plus yards and none over 40 yards.

Witten was targeted a league-high 126 times, but he had 17 more receptions, 153 more yards and six more touchdowns than Cooley.

Watson, to me, was a bigger force in Cleveland's offense than other tight ends were to their teams. He finished fifth among all tight ends in receptions, fifth in yards and 13th in average yards (minimum 40 catches). Watson tied Cooley for third with 40 first-down receptions -- but on 25 fewer targets.

Check back later for my rundown of AFC East tight ends.

AFC East Week 10 decisive moment

November, 16, 2010
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

You can argue the decisive moment happened with 1:35 left in sudden death, when Cleveland Browns safety Joe Haden declined to bat down Mark Sanchez's long third-down prayer and instead chose to intercept on the 3-yard line.

You certainly can argue the decisive moment happened with 16 seconds left in overtime, when Santonio Holmes took a quick slant 37 yards into the end zone to give the New York Jets a 26-20 victory.

I prefer to argue the decisive moment came in between.

The Jets might have pinned the Browns deep in their own territory anyway with a Steve Weatherford punt. And the Jets might have won the game anyway with a Nick Folk field goal (OK, maybe a stretch based on his three earlier misses, but play along with me here).

Browns coach Eric Mangini opened the door for the Jets to win because of the way he managed the end of the game. With 95 seconds and three timeouts, Mangini essentially sealed his fate by going for the win and not settling for the tie.

Browns fans couldn't be upset with his aggressiveness, but the decision turned a draw into a Jets victory.

Browns quarterback Colt McCoy threw an incomplete pass to tight end Benjamin Watson, taking only five seconds off the clock. Then the Browns chose to hand off to Peyton Hillis, who gained 2 yards and then paused before calling a timeout. On third down, Jason Taylor and Shaun Ellis teamed up to sack McCoy at the 2-yard line.

The Jets called their last timeout with 35 ticks remaining and forced Reggie Hodges to punt from the back of his end zone.

Cleveland failed to gain yardage or run out the clock.

The Jets, however, wound up with just enough time and space to notch another win.

Rapid Reaction: Jets 26, Browns 20

November, 14, 2010
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CLEVELAND -- The New York Jets scored another wild victory, scoring in the final seconds of sudden death to beat the Cleveland Browns 26-20.

What it means: The Jets amazingly won -- again -- and are in command of the AFC East at 7-2. They are a few fortunate plays away from being winless in their past four games, having magically beaten the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions also.

Hero: Mark Sanchez was Houdini, escaping a couple of near-certain sacks late in the game to keep plays -- and the game -- alive. He connected with Santonio Holmes on a 37-yard catch-and-run to win a game that deserved to end in a tie.

Goat I: This is a rare case where the winning team has a goat. Jets kicker Nick Folk missed three field goals, including a 24-yarder in the third quarter and a 47-yarder in overtime.

Goat II: Former Jets receiver Chansi Stuckey converted a crucial third down in overtime with a 14-yard reception, but Jets cornerback Drew Coleman stripped him, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie recovered on the Jets' 36-yard line.

Defense rises up (temporarily): After a raggedy 30 minutes, Rex Ryan's defense came alive in the second half. A foot injury to Browns receiver Josh Cribbs and dominant time of possession for the Jets' offense helped. But the Jets sacked Colt McCoy twice and held Peyton Hillis to 22 yards. Hillis ran 10 times for 60 yards and a touchdown in the first half. The Jets allowed one first down and forced two three-and-outs on Cleveland's first three series.

And then: On the Browns' fourth series of the second half, they gave up the tying touchdown. McCoy looked like Brian Sipe circa 1980 in moving the Browns 59 yards on 10 plays in 1:58. McCoy connected on three consecutive passes to finish the drive. Benjamin Watson made a sensational catch for 21 yards on a third-and-10 play, and one snap later Evan Moore made an even better one for 18 yards against Darrelle Revis. McCoy tossed to Mohamed Massaquoi for the 3-yard touchdown.

Braylon's battle: In what he called his "personal war" with Cleveland, Edwards had four catches and 59 yards. He also was called for holding to erase a 25-yard Brad Smith run.

That empty feeling: The Jets kept the ball for the first 10:04 of the third quarter yet failed to inflate their lead. Folk missed a 24-yard field goal, clanking the right upright.

Sanchez scare: The Browns sacked Sanchez on third down with 1:24 left in the third quarter. He limped off the field and had his right leg checked out for several minutes on the sideline trainer's table. Backup quarterback Mark Brunell warmed up, but Sanchez returned for the next series.

What's next: The Houston Texans drop by the Meadowlands to play the Jets on Sunday.

Dolphins D unable to clamp tight ends

September, 30, 2010
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The Miami Dolphins have a problem defending tight ends.

They struggled throughout 2009 to contain them, and they're off to a rougher start this season.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
AP Photo/Paul Spinelli The Dolphins face Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez on Monday night. He's averaging 70.3 receiving yards per game.
Tight ends accumulated a nice stat line against Miami last year: 68 receptions for 993 yards and four touchdowns.

Through three games, even with the Buffalo Bills not throwing a single pass to their tight ends on opening day, that position is on pace to catch 69 passes for 1,099 yards and 11 touchdowns against the Dolphins.

That's an All-Pro campaign.

"We've got to do a little bit better job," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said.

Next up are a pair of rookies who've already established themselves as dangerous targets.

The Dolphins will have difficult matchups Monday night with New England Patriots tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

Each is capable to doing damage.

Hernandez is more of a pure receiver, averaging 70.3 receiving yards per game. That ranks him fourth among all tight ends behind only Jermichael Finley, Antonio Gates and Dustin Keller and ahead of Dallas Clark.

Gronkowksi is the bigger red-zone threat. He has a pair of touchdowns, tying him for third in the league. On the Patriots, he has one fewer touchdown than Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

"They've done a very good job," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "Both are very young in age. I think one of them is 20 (Hernandez) and one just turned 21 (Gronkowski). So for young players, it's pretty neat to find them playing such a great role on our offense.

"With each week, I think they are gaining a little more confidence in what they're doing through the experience that they're having, and we're relying on them every week to be playmakers for us."

The Patriots were one of the few teams who didn't get in on the tight end passing party last year.

As gaudy as the aforementioned 2009 tight end stats versus the Dolphins looked, the Patriots actually improved the averages. Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker combined for only five receptions and 55 yards in two games against Miami.

Tight ends tearing apart the Dolphins in the middle of the field -- think of Clark's seven-catch, 183-yard night -- were a major reason they made so many offseason defensive changes. The Dolphins fired coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. They released linebackers Akin Ayodele and Reggie Torbor and safety Gibril Wilson because they were responsible for so many big plays.

Keller exploited the Dolphins on Sunday night. He helped the Jets post a big road victory with six catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. The Dolphins did shut him out after the intermission, but that wasn't soon enough.

Sparano knows he'll have problems again Monday night.

"It's difficult, no question about it," Sparano said of Hernandez and Gronkowski. "I think you can try a lot of ways, but with the Patriots you've got to kind of pick your poison a little bit. You can go out there and maybe try to double one of those guys, but then you could expose yourself with Randy or with Wes or with any of those people. You've got to be a little bit careful."

With Maroney gone, who'll Pats fans boo?

September, 14, 2010
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So who are New England Patriots fans going to adopt as their new favorite player to dislike?

[+] EnlargeLaurence Maroney
David Butler II/US PresswireRunning back Laurence Maroney, traded to Denver on Tuesday, fell out of favor with Patriots fans in recent seasons.
Randy Moss might insist he already holds that position, claiming after Sunday's game that in "the New England area, there's a lot of people who don't want to see me do good."

But for the past four years, Laurence Maroney probably was the guy who heard the most boos.

The Patriots on Tuesday traded Maroney to the Denver Broncos. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the Patriots packaged a sixth-round pick with Maroney and received a fourth-round pick in return.

That's not great value for a player the Patriots selected 21st overall in 2006 to be their franchise running back.

We can officially label that pick a bust.

You could argue last year that Maroney was the biggest lightning rod on the team, a player who angered fans as much as he thrilled them.

Or was it tight end Benjamin Watson? Or was it outside linebacker Adalius Thomas?

All of them are gone now. Watson was a free agent whose contract wasn't renewed. Thomas was released.

On his ESPNBoston.com blog, Mike Reiss has posted an analysis of Maroney's time in New England and his place on the depth chart lately. Maroney was inactive for the season opener.

I've always thought Maroney was the most attractive backfield option for the Patriots. His pitter-pat running style before hitting the hole drove Patriots fans bonkers, but he was young, talented and capable of a big game every week.

The past three preseasons I inaccurately predicted Maroney would become a force. He was a force down the homestretch for the 2007 Patriots. In their last six games, postseason included, of their nearly undefeated campaign he rushed for at least one touchdown in each game and topped 100 yards four times.

But he never gained Patriots coach Bill Belichick's full trust and became a liability last year. He didn't fumble once in 2007 or 2008, but he fumbled four times last year. All of them came in a seven-game stretch, and he lost them all.

Gonzalez has advice for Patriots TEs

August, 17, 2010
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The New England Patriots made upgrading their tight ends a priority in the offseason.

They practically wiped their depth chart clean and started over, signing free agent Alge Crumpler and drafting a pair of tight ends: Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth.

The Patriots this week are holding joint practices against the Atlanta Falcons in advance of their preseason game Thursday night in the Georgia Dome.

Who better to talk to about the Patriots' tight ends than Tony Gonzalez, a surefire Pro Football Hall of Famer?

"I have watched both tight ends," Gonzalez told reporters Tuesday, "and they are rookies. So they are still learning this game.

"I do see a future for them."

Gronkowski is a more multidimensional tight end, but has a disconcerting injury history that caused him to slip in the draft relative to his talent. Hernandez has made a stronger impression in Patriots camp with his receiving skills but is lacking as a blocker.

"Hernandez, with the receiving part of it, has got that down," Gonzalez said. "He can keep improving on that. If you are going to be a tight end, and you want to be called a tight end, then you better learn how to block. That is what the position is.

"With [Gronkowski], I think he has a pretty good receiving game and he has got the blocking pretty good."

Gronkowski and Hernandez would be wise to soak up as much as they can from Gonzalez this week. Gonzalez's next reception will be his 1,000th. He has been named to 10 Pro Bowls and voted All-Pro five times.

"You have to be a complete tight end," Gonzalez said. "You can't just be a receiving tight end, or just a blocking tight end. You have to do both things at a pretty high level.

"You can do one a little bit better, but something I tell every player coming into the league is that you get out of it what you put into it. It's not about what you do at practice. It's about what you do before practice and after practice. If you are one of those guys who goes straight in after the horn rings to shower and go home then I don’t think you can be ever as good as you could be."

Over or under? New England Patriots

June, 29, 2010
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Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell and I pick over or under for three players from each AFC East team, using 2010 statistical projections from ESPN.com's fantasy analysts.

It's time to bring you the New England Patriots.

Brady
Brady
Quarterback Tom Brady, 30 touchdowns

Barnwell's take: OVER, but only slightly. If you plug Brady's historical touchdown rate (5.3 percent) into last year's total of 565 pass attempts, you get ... 30.1 touchdowns. I don't know if that's necessarily the right figure to use, though. Brady had 50 touchdowns in his legendary 2007 season. In 2009, Brady saw each of his top receivers get hurt, and his third guy was Sam Aiken for a good portion of the year. I think Julian Edelman and/or Torry Holt should be an upgrade as the third receiver. It might only be 32 or 33 touchdowns, but that would still be over.

My take: UNDER. Brady has surpassed 28 touchdowns in a season exactly once. Sure, Brady was transcendent in 2007. But he, Randy Moss and Wes Welker have accumulated a lot of scars since then. Nobody knows when Welker will return to form after knee and shoulder surgeries. Moss is 33 years old and has been slowed by injuries. Brady, a year after he tossed seven touchdown passes to tight ends Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker, will be throwing to rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. With all those variables, I have little reason to trust Brady will throw for more touchdowns in 2010 than he has in seven of his eight full seasons.

Moss

Moss
Receiver Randy Moss, 93 catches

Barnwell's take: UNDER. Even though I think Brady will hit the over on touchdowns, this is a really high total for a player that's struggled with minor injuries throughout his time in New England (even if those injuries have been swept under the rug at times). The Pats should also have more in the way of options for Brady, which should allow him to spread the ball out to a wider group of targets.

My take: UNDER. I agree with Bill. This number seems irrationally high to me. Perhaps the belief is that he'll pick up some slack while Welker recovers. But Moss has surpassed 83 passes just once in his past six seasons. He has shown signs of wear, playing a good portion of last season with a separated shoulder, a league source told ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss after the Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs.

Welker

Welker
Receiver Wes Welker, 89 receptions

Barnwell's take: UNDER. This really comes down to how healthy you think Welker is. This sort of recovery timeframe from an ACL injury would not be unprecedented. Philip Rivers had a torn ACL and had surgery after the playoffs in 2007, and he was quite fantastic in 2008. Then again, Rivers wasn't playing wide receiver. If I knew Welker would be on the field Week 1 at 90 percent, I'd take the over. But I think it will take longer for him to heal than, perhaps, the Patriots have been playing up.

My take: UNDER. So much of Welker's game relies on cuts, stops and starts. Those are the types of activities that put so much strain on a player's knees. Welker averaged 8.9 receptions a game last year, so it's easy to do the math and see he could miss six games and still hit ESPN.com's fantasy projection at that clip. But we can't possibly expect Welker to maintain the same torrid pace he set when perfectly healthy. Edelman's emergence will allow the Patriots to bring Welker back cautiously and give Brady another option even when Welker gets back on the field.

An AFC East roster analysis for the ages

May, 7, 2010
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On Monday, with the help of Boston Globe reporter Albert Breer, we took a cursory look at how old the AFC East is skewing for 2010.

Pro-Football-Reference.com writer Chase Stuart gives a more advanced examination of the chronology teams are dealing with on the "The Fifth Down" blog at NYTimes.com.

Stuart's analysis looks at 2009 starters, not the total roster, and is based on a weighted formula that considers the value of the position.

Here are the average ages, with league rating for how young they were in parentheses.

Buffalo Bills

  • Team age: 27.5 (tied 23rd)
  • Offense age: 27.5 (22nd)
  • Defense age: 27.5 (tied 18th)
Miami Dolphins

  • Team age: 26.8 (tied 7th)
  • Offense age: 26.1 (tied 1st)
  • Defense age: 27.7 (23rd)
New England Patriots

  • Team age: 28.7 (32nd)
  • Offense age: 29.7 (32nd)
  • Defense age: 27.5 (tied 18th)
New York Jets

  • Team age: 27.6 (25th)
  • Offense age: 27.7 (24th)
  • Defense age: 27.6 (tied 22nd)
What stands out is that the AFC East was pretty old. Of the dozen categories listed above, only two rated in the youngest third of the league. The Dolphins' offense tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the greenest, a good sign for the future.

The Patriots had the oldest team by nearly half a year and the oldest offense by nearly a full year.

Their offense should remain the oldest in 2010. It essentially returns intact. Tight end Benjamin Watson is gone and slot receiver Wes Welker might not be ready to return from his knee injury when the season opens, but the Patriots added tight end Alge Crumpler and receiver Torry Holt, who will be 33 and 34, respectively, before the season is over.

Hernandez continues Patriots' TE makeover

April, 24, 2010
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A month ago, the only tight ends on the New England Patriots' roster were Robbie Agnone and Rob Myers, undrafted rookies on last year's practice squad.

They cut Chris Baker and let Benjamin Watson drift off into free agency.

The depth chart looked rather empty.

Today, the Patriots have an impressive group of tight ends that should have them set for years to come.

The Patriots on Saturday morning selected Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round. They took Arizona's Ron Gronkowski in the second round Friday night, giving them two of the top four tight ends in this year's class, according to Scouts Inc.

Gronkowski is viewed as a more complete tight end, but had back problems that wiped out his junior season. Hernandez is the better receiver. Hernandez had 68 receptions for 850 yards and five touchdowns last year.

New England previously signed veteran Alge Crumpler, a two-time Pro Bowler who has morphed into more of a blocker than a receiver.

Patriots trade up to get Gronkowski

April, 23, 2010
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The New England Patriots traded a sixth-round pick to move up two slots and take Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski with the 42nd selection in the draft.

Why the Patriots picked him: The Patriots had a major need at tight end, especially one who could catch after they declined to re-sign Benjamin Watson. They signed veteran free agent Alge Crumpler, who has evolved into more of a blocking tight end than a receiver.

Where Gronkowski fits: Fantasy football alert! Gronkowski likely becomes a key red-zone target for Tom Brady. Aside from Gronkowski and Crumpler, the only tight ends on the roster are Robbie Agnone and Rob Myers, undrafted rookies last year without an NFL reception between them.

Scouts Inc. says: Big, soft hands. Reliable pass catcher. Shows the ability to catch over his head and to adjust to the poorly thrown pass. ... Flashes the ability to win the jump ball and/or sneak down the seam. Has adequate-to-good straight-line speed but not elite. Does not show much wiggle after the catch, either. Has a nose for the end zone and does a great job of getting open as a red zone target. ... Solid overall blocker with room to improve in this area. Gives a solid effort and will fight to finish. Flashes a mean streak. Does a good job with angles in space and shows ability to serve as occasional lead blocker in a FB/H-back role.

Wycheck: Crumpler still has plenty to give

March, 18, 2010
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The New England Patriots have a tight end who has caught an NFL pass.

Crumpler
Crumpler
Alge Crumpler actually has snagged 367 of them for 37 touchdowns.

Multiple outlets are reporting the Patriots have reached terms with Crumpler, a four-time Pro Bowler who spent the past two seasons with the Tennessee Titans.

The Patriots had a major void at tight end after losing free-agent Benjamin Watson to the Cleveland Browns and releasing Chris Baker. Those moves left them with only Robbie Agnone and Rob Myers, undrafted rookies on last year's practice squad, on their roster.

"It's a loss," Titans radio analyst and former tight end Frank Wycheck said of Crumpler's departure. "He's such a great professional, a stand-up guy win or lose. Theyr'e going to lose that leadership and that presence.

"The Patriots are getting a guy who fits the mold of what they've done over the years, bringing in guys you can trust to step up and play well."

In Crumpler's time with Tennessee, he evolved into a balanced tight end. He was known as a dangerous receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. He caught 24 touchdown passes in his last four seasons with them before joining the Titans as a free agent.

Wycheck said Crumpler excelled when the Titans gave him greater blocking responsibilities. Crumpler played a significant role in helping speedy running back Chris Johnson hit the corner throughout his 2,000-yard rushing season.

"He really blocked well, something he hasn't gotten enough credit for over his career," Wycheck said. "He's a really stout blocker, really holds the edge well.

"He embraced the role of going both on the line as a lead blocker and still being an effective receiver."

Crumpler had 27 receptions for a career-low 222 yards and one touchdown last season. Bo Scaife was the primary receiver at tight end, catching 45 passes for 440 yards.

Wycheck noted Crumpler won't be breaking down the middle of the field like he used to. But Crumpler still has incredible hands and the size to post up between the hash marks.

"It'll be a little bit of a change because everybody remembers Ben Watson tracking down Champ Bailey from behind," Wycheck said. "If you're expecting Alge to run like Ben Watson, that won't be the case."

"But I see him like Tony Gonzalez the past few years. Alge uses his smarts and experience. No one expects him to be the Alge that he was in Atlanta, but he's still playing really well and enjoying the game."

Grahamtastic interview on 'SVP Show'

March, 12, 2010
3/12/10
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For those who didn't get a chance to catch my ESPN Radio segment Friday afternoon with Ryen Russillo of "The Scott Van Pelt Show," you can experience the broadcast splendor right here. For those who heard it live, I know you're eager to relive the magic.

Topics included:

Patriots' TE depth chart plunges into abyss

March, 12, 2010
3/12/10
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With the loss of Benjamin Watson and no tight ends who've played in an NFL game on their roster, the New England Patriots have a crater at the position.

In a piece for ESPNBoston.com, Mike Reiss examines the void, pointing out the Patriots don't even have a tight ends coach on their roster.

Writes Reiss:

Consider that back in training camp, Bill Belichick called the competition between Watson, Chris Baker, Alex Smith and David Thomas the best in his 10 years as head coach. Now consider that none of those players are on the current roster.

How does that happen?

In retrospect, they swung and missed at every turn.

What's left for the Patriots are Rob Myers and Robbie Agnone, a pair of undrafted rookies from last year's practice squad.

The Patriots have held free-agent interviews with three-time Pro Bowler Alge Crumpler and Daniel Fells. The latter re-signed with the St. Louis Rams. Reiss takes a look at the rest of the unemployed, including Randy McMichael and Reggie Kelly and notes this year's draft class is deep at tight end.

video

AFC East wire: Watson's tenure unfulfilling

March, 12, 2010
3/12/10
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New England Patriots

Buffalo Bills

Miami Dolphins

New York Jets

Patriots doings and one not doing

March, 8, 2010
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Leigh Bodden's agent is telling everybody "Don't believe the type."

Bodden has not re-signed with the New England Patriots.

"Reports of Leigh Bodden re-signing with the Patriots are not true and premature at best," Bodden's agent, Alvin Keels, tweeted Monday night. "Leigh is still evaluating his options."

Well, fine.

But multiple outlets report Bodden and the Patriots have agreed in principle on a new contract that will keep him in Foxborough after an effective season as the club's right cornerback.

Bodden made like Ryan Clark, flirting with another team before returning home. Bodden visited the Houston Texans on Monday. Clark spent the day with the Miami Dolphins but re-signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In other Patriots news:

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